Perspectives

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

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BY SULYN WEAVER, M.Ed.

SuLyn Weaver is a math educator of 19 years with Kentwood Public Schools in Greater Grand Rapids, where she also serves as a teacher leader. She is active on Twitter at @eunmi220


This summer, my family didn’t take any big vacations or go to the beach. We did spend some time in the sun, went to an outdoor movie (Crazy Rich Asians), and I was cast for a role in a short film.  For much of the past three months, I was preparing myself to be my best for students on day one.  Here’s a taste.

First, I created a new attendance system for our summer school administrator and then taught two groups of students for six weeks. My first assignment was to help prepare incoming high school students for the demands they will experience this year in freshman Algebra. It was as much about building relationships and confidence as it was about developing mathematical skills and knowledge. My second group of students will return to us this fall. We worked together to close gaps in their learning so they have the skills and confidence as students to embrace grade-level work.

I also planned to implement a new curriculum resource. Each time the middle school math department adopts a new curriculum, in many ways, it feels like hitting a reset button. I’m preparing for the hours I’ll spend aligning lessons to standards and assessments to lessons. I’m preparing for unit mapping and setting an implementation guide that will be my base for the following year. I’m drawing on all the knowledge I’ve gained through professional development, conferences, and collaboration to set up my math peers for success.

Accepting that I haven’t always done what is best for my students, but instead what was best for me, is a hard pill to swallow.”

Yet another part of my summer was devoted to my development as a teacher leader with Leading Educators. Through learning experiences with the LE team, I have felt personal growth of colossal proportions in my knowledge and awareness of:

  • the standards, 

  • the essential math shifts of focus, rigor, and coherence, 

  • how to analyze a lesson for the most crucial components of the mathematical tasks,

  • and how to plan and teach through a lens of equity. 

Beyond sessions, we heard from a group of exceptional student performers who shared poetry and stories of self that reminded us why we were there. Leaders from Godfrey-Lee Public Schools and Kent ISD also shared data about the opportunity gaps that exist within our own schools and the responsibility we have to ensure the likelihood of success is not dependent on a student’s skin color.  Accepting that I haven’t always done what is best for my students, but instead what was best for me, is a hard pill to swallow. 

This work has afforded me a safe place to examine my own practice with a more critical focus. I spent two full days with our district’s Leading Educators coach and her colleagues. The time is intense, vulnerable, and profound; it is also exhausting. As each day closes, we’re asked to summarize it using a survey. This year, as I struggled to access words, activities, and learning, I reflected on the numerous times my students might feel that same mental exhaustion throughout the day. I have new empathy for them as they’re also working through all the conundrums of adolescence.

My last, and most personal, activity this summer has been joining an organization which endeavors to support, advocate for, and amplify the voices of educators of color. I teach in the most diverse school district in our state, but there are times I don’t interact with an adult who is a person of color all day. As I think about my own daily interactions, I reflect on the implications for my students and with whom they interact. I am excited for what this network of educators will collectively bring to the community.


Read another Grand Rapids leader’s take on preparing for the new school year here (via EdNet).

Do More with Teacher Appreciation

BY MAGGIE SLYE, Managing Director of Thought Leadership

Do a quick Google search for “Teacher Appreciation Week” and you will uncover dozens of pages broadcasting special deals for teachers, gift ideas for parents, and recognition events.  Now in the 35th year, this annual reminder that teachers are valued brings rare national focus to education as a top tier issue for five short days. We can never show too much gratitude for the 3,700,000 teachers who have devoted their lives to igniting the fullest potential in all of our students. And as a teacher and school leader for over 15 years who now supports teachers’ growth across the country, I can’t help but think we are missing the point. Teacher Appreciation cards, gifts, and events certainly communicate care, and there is much more we can do to show teachers how much we value their service.  

Let’s add these essentials to a national “Teacher Appreciation Gift Guide”:

High-quality instructional materials:  What teachers teach matters just as much as how they teach it.  The truth is the quality of teaching materials varies widely, and most curricula in schools today do not meet the highest of standards despite the growing availability of low- or no-cost options.  This means too many teachers resort to spending about 7 hours per week searching for materials online or creating them from scratch. Planning time should allow teachers to focus their energy on bringing strong materials to life, not figuring out what to use.  When school systems prioritize adoption of high-quality curriculum, they increase the likelihood that every student will have access to the content they need to learn and thrive.

Meaningful professional development: School districts spend nearly $18,000 per teacher, per year on teacher professional development.  Where that investment fails is it rarely connects to what teachers are actually teaching, missing the mark on  the student growth teachers want to spark. Instead, schools should support every teacher with consistent professional learning opportunities that facilitate building deep content knowledge and cultivating instructional practices their students need. Better yet, when teams of teacher engage in learning together, it fosters collective ownership of student outcomes across classrooms, allows teachers to pinpoint challenges that might be common to multiple groups of students, and land on timely, evidence-based solutions to implement rather than struggling alone.  This process, used in tandem with high-quality materials, equips teachers to drive a coherent vision for instructional excellence that accounts for the needs and strengths of all learners.

Think of schools as places where students and teachers learn: Schools were generally not designed with teacher learning in mind, and it might not be obvious why that matters.  Teachers experience frequent change as standards and expectations for student learning evolve to meet the demands of a rapidly changing global economy. Whereas other sectors, including medicine and engineering, take these anticipated evolutions into consideration through credentialing and training that responds to new research, teacher roles and working conditions have not been designed with continuous learning embedded. Shifting this reality requires creating sacred time for learning-focused collaboration, limiting school priorities, and distributing leadership capacity for timely feedback and coaching.

As educators, community members, students, and parents, we can build a system that supports students and teachers. This Teacher Appreciation Week, let’s commit our collective creativity, capability, and resources to do even more to honor our nation’s teachers.

Maggie Slye is the Managing Director of Thought Leadership at Leading Educators. Previously, she led Leading Educators' partnership with DC Public Schools to launch and scale LEAP, a job-embedded, curriculum-specific professional learning system. In her 20 year career, Maggie has served as an assistant principal, central office director, literacy coach, and teacher. She is active in conversations on Twitter about the future of teaching, curriculum, and learning standards at @MaggieSlye.

Meet M. René Islas, Chief External Relations Officer at Leading Educators

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M. René Islas joined Leading Educators this month as Chief External Relations Officer. He is a lifelong advocate for students and families, holding positions at the U.S. Department of Education, several nonprofit organizations, and school support partners. Here he shares about the experiences that have shaped his leadership and his vision for helping schools ignite potential:

LE: What should the Leading Educators community know about you?

MRI: I am always looking to improve. This starts with personal improvement but then extends to other things in my life. I am a consultant by nature and always start with the question, “How can we make things even better?”  That’s the spirit of our growth value at Leading Educators, and I am excited to continue exploring how that commitment to building on strengths can lead to better experiences for students and families every day.

LE: You have worked in education for your entire career from many vantage points. What is the most influential lesson you’ve learned from an educator along the way?

MRI: I learned that despite our best efforts, systemic inequity still exists. It will take more than just teaching everyone well for students to overcome systemic barriers. As leaders in education, we must acknowledge that parts of our system are built to favor one group of students over another. Acknowledging this is the first step, then we need to search for, and implement, solutions that support all students to reach for their personal best.

“As leaders in education, we must acknowledge that parts of our system are built to favor one group of students over another. Acknowledging this is the first step, then we need to search for, and implement, solutions that support all students to reach for their personal best.”

LE: In your personal story, there are many connections between family and education. You spent a lot of time as a child with your grandfather who was a school principal, and you now have four children of your own. What have those experiences taught you about the kind of education every family should be able to expect for their children?

MRI: I was raised by generations of great educators. They are award-winning teachers and principals who have gone above and beyond the call of duty for their students. I can cite examples of how each of them looked at the individual children in their classrooms, searched for their individual strengths and needs, and then adapted their own professional skills to best support each student. Raising my children, I discovered that this professional practice demonstrated by members of my family are rare. My hope is that more educators will work to see each child as a unique bundle of potential that they will work to help blossom.

LE: You are person with many interests in addition to education, and we have a handful of rapid questions to scratch the surface. Are you game?

MRI: Yes!

LE: Who is that teacher you will never forget?

MRI: My middle school English teacher. She challenged me to write an essay on advocating for civil rights. She showed me that she believed in my ability to persuade through the pen and then supported me to refine my message. I appreciate her encouragement and hope that I can inspire others as she did for me.

LE: What’s the best book you’ve ever read?

MRI: Jacob’s Ladder: Ten Steps to Truth. It's a fun, easy read, covering heavy stuff. I love philosophy!

LE: Who’s someone who inspires you?

MRI: Dr. Martin Luther King. He bravely chose the hard road--non-violent, direct action--to challenge our nation to turn away from systemic racism.

LE: Where’s your favorite place in the world?

MRI: Jamaica. It’s my family’s happy place.

LE: What are three things you can’t live without?

MRI: God. Family. Music.

LE: What are you most proud of in life so far?

MRI: My four kids. Each one of them brings a distinct set of gifts to our family and community.

Meet Kelvey Oeser, Chief of Networks at Leading Educators

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Kelvey Oeser recently joined Leading Educators as the first Chief of Networks.  Throughout her career, she has worked with diverse communities of educators to spark wide-reaching school improvement.  Here she shares about the experiences that have shaped her leadership and her vision for the journey ahead.

LE: Hi, Kelvey. What an exciting time! For those in the Leading Educators movement who are meeting you for the first time, tell us a little bit about yourself.

KO: Hi! I’m excited to join this collective effort in a new capacity. I have been in this work of helping schools and school systems improve opportunity for the past decade. As a result, I have developed some deep beliefs about what it will take to achieve more equitable outcomes for all kids.

First, people are our most valuable asset.  The work we do will only be successful if we develop and grow leaders at all levels of education. We have to take care of our people, build strong relationships with each other, support people to do their best work, make the work fun, and allow people to lead by building trust and giving people ownership and autonomy over their work.

Second, diversity and inclusion is critical to achieving equity.  We have to build strong, diverse, and inclusive cultures in order to have within-school and within-system equity, and to achieve more equitable outcomes for kids.  We need all perspectives to be heard to make shared ideas and our solutions better, and we especially need to amplify perspectives within the communities we exist to serve.  We need to foster inclusive culture in order to develop, retain, and promote diverse leaders over time.

“Providing teachers with higher quality, more rigorous instructional materials and then aligning all of the training and support they receive to the materials they are expected to use is just the beginning of making teaching easier and more effective.”

Third, communities and context matter. Organizations like ours should be partnering with communities and not doing work to communities.  We will only be able to achieve stronger outcomes for students, and ensure these outcomes are sustainable over time, if we are really listening to and working with communities to ensure the work responds to their needs and contexts.  We need to understand the factors that drive their long-term investment in and demand for this work to continue over time. Education nonprofits and district leaders come and go, but the community always remains.

LE: You’ve been an educator for a long time, and you have also supported the growth of thousands of educators in a variety of contexts. What have you learned about what educators want and need to be their best selves?

KO:  Teaching is hard. I learned that first-hand as a middle school teacher in East Los Angeles, and I have re-learned that fact many times in my roles designing training and development for teachers.  There isn't one answer to what it will take to improve instruction at scale.  I have learned many hard lessons about things that don't work as the "silver bullet" for supporting and developing teachers.  

Working at TNTP with a focus on teacher development during the release of The Mirage was an especially humbling experience.  It required me to confront and reconcile my work with report findings which showed that almost all of the teacher development efforts districts are currently implementing don't work.  I have learned that teachers can't do everything that is currently being asked of them really well, sustainably, and at scale, especially with the additional content knowledge and rigor that is required by Common Core-aligned standards. We have to find ways to make this work easier for them and not harder.  The answer cannot be piling more stuff on a teacher's plate or to just recruit and select more "superstar" teachers who can somehow do it all.

Providing teachers with higher quality, more rigorous instructional materials and then aligning all of the training and support they receive to the materials they are expected to use is just the beginning of making teaching easier and more effective. That is one of the big reasons I was drawn to Leading Educators.  

I also believe the teacher mindset work we do at Leading Educators is critical. I have seen teachers struggle--and I struggled as a new teacher--to put more rigorous content in front of students because of unconscious bias about what students are capable of doing. Teachers sometimes lower expectations for students over time, and there is a tendency to hold onto problematic beliefs about what teaching can and should look like.  As a new teacher, I thought my role was to do everything possible to help my kids “get it”, and I was scared to let them struggle too much because they might fail. Of course, now I know that wrestling with content is part of learning.

I also believe we need to be thinking about other models for the teacher role, ways we can be better utilize technology and personalized learning, and ways we can restructure school and district support systems to more substantially change the way teaching and learning happen in schools. I’m excited about LE's ongoing work around enabling conditions and upcoming partnerships that will explore the intersections of content-based professional learning, technology and personalized learning.

LE: You have another important role in life as the mother to Elias and Abigail.  As a parent, what’s top of mind for you when you think about the kind of education every child deserves?

KO:  Having kids definitely gave me a new perspective on the education system.  Every time I walk into a classroom now, I ask myself: "If this was Elias's or Abigail's classroom, would this be okay?".  And, unfortunately, too often the answer to that question is "no", which breaks my heart and increases my urgency for the work we are doing.  

When I was first looking for daycare and pre-K options for Elias, I chose to enroll him in a private Montessori-based program.  I didn't know much about the Montessori approach at the time, but after doing several walk throughs of local daycare facilities and asking a lot of questions of the teachers and program leaders (that were likely way more detailed than they usually get from parents), I picked the Montessori-based program because it was the only place where I felt the school leader and teachers could clearly define what they meant by "focusing on the whole child". They could articulate a clear and detailed continuum of learning from the earliest developmental stages. They were aligned to some of the most important outcomes that I wanted for Elias which included that he learned to love learning, learned independence, and learned how to operate successfully in school as well as life.

After going through this process with Elias, the reality of the opportunity gap in education became so much more real to me as I recognized how privileged I was to be able to access and afford a daycare that aligned with what I most wanted for Elias's longer-term education.  So many parents don't have that choice. I also began to see how different my vision of the education I wanted for my own kids was from the schools and classrooms we were often holding up as "exemplars" in the teacher training that I was helping to design and implement.

This experience led me to do two things. The first was to join the board of a newly formed organization called Montessori for All, which is an Austin-based, public charter management organization.  They seek to open and lead free, high-performing, authentic Montessori schools that partner with families to help children in diverse communities reach their extraordinary potential intellectually, emotionally, socially, creatively, culturally, and physically, so that they can pursue lives full of meaning and joy.  

The second is that I began on a journey to better align my work and to a vision for instruction and student outcomes that more closely reflects what I want for my own kids. To be clear, I don't think that the Montessori-approach is the only vision for what great instruction should look like. But I think there are elements of the approach, especially the clearer and more holistic definition for student outcomes, that all parents want for their kids and therefore that should be driving how we train and support teachers.


LE: We know you bring many other experiences and and interests with you in your daily life, so we’re going to close with some rapid questions. Are you ready?

KO: Yes!

LE: Describe yourself in a hashtag.

KO: #I'mTooOldToUseHashtagsCorrectly

I had to phone a friend for this one. She recommended #introvert because I'm kind of an introvert.  I am exhausted by small talk and large group facilitation, and I get a ton of energy from building deep relationships and having purposeful conversations.  However, I also really enjoy and am motivated by spending time building, expanding, and deepening my network of friends and colleagues.

LE: If your life was a book, what would it be called?

KO: Cycling Your Way Through Zoom Calls: The Kelvey Oeser Journey.  I have a desk bike, and my remote LE team members will likely see me rocking back and forth on a Zoom call soon.  

LE: Where’s your favorite place in the world?

KO: The front deck of my house in Austin.  We built it a couple of years ago, and I love going out there in the evenings to sit, listen to music, drink a glass of wine, talk with my family, read a book, say "hi" to the neighbors as they go on evening walks, watch the kids ride their bikes, and watch the sunset.

LE:  Coffee or tea?

KO:  Both, I am a caffeine addict, and I find drinking hot drinks comforting.  I drink coffee all morning, and then I switch to hot tea if I need something relaxing and less caffeinated to drink in the afternoon or evening.  

LE: What are three things you can’t live without?

KO: Do people count as a "thing”?  If so, my family is definitely first on my list.  Then, my dogs. And, finally would be a good book.  Just don't ask me to pick which one.

LE: Most adventurous thing you’ve done in your life?

KO:  I've never done anything too extreme in terms of adventures.  My husband and I went ziplining in Costa Rica when we were on our honeymoon, which was pretty fun, extremely beautiful, and also a little scary.  We're about to go back to Costa Rica for my birthday in March, and I'm planning to learn how to surf, so I will be able to add that to my adventure list.  

The Power That We Hold

Lacey Robinson, Chief of Program and Engagement at UnboundEd, joined us at the 2018 Leading Educators Institute to share a version of her influential keynote, “Footlocker and Fridays.”  During the 50-minute address, Lacey shares the story of Shiloh, a former student of who dreamed of being a teacher. Past tense.

Using Shiloh’s story as an anchor, Lacey unpacks the systemic roots of oppression and racism that limit the opportunities of students of color and students in low-income environments. She challenges educators to understand their role in creating reparations in our schools through rigorous instruction.

Watch below:

More About Lacey Robinson:

Lacey Robinson has more that 20 years in education as an educator, principal, and staff development specialist with a focus on literacy, equity, and school leadership. As chief, program and engagement, Lacey is responsible for engaging with external partners including collaborators in the K-12 education space as well as district and system leadership to support standards-aligned, content-focused adult learning and professional development.

She oversees key design and execution elements for primary external UnboundEd service offerings, including Communities of Practice (CoP) and Standards Institute (SI) and the national programs. Previously, Lacey was the senior director of implementation for the national Transforming Teams program at New Leaders, a nonprofit that trains aspiring and current school leaders. Lacey is certified in facilitative leadership and has served as a staff development specialist nationally and internationally, most recently working with the Medical School of Rwanda on organizational and change management.

What Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Mean for Teaching

Dr. G.T. Reyes joined us at the 2018 Leading Educators Institute to share his perspective on the "why" behind diversity, equity, and inclusion and what they mean for teacher practice.  Dr. Reyes argues that we need to dismantle systems and structures that were designed to exclude in the first place to create schools where all students can succeed.

More About Dr. G.T. Reyes

Settling in modern-day East Oakland, which is ancestral land to the Huichin Ohlone, Dr. G.T. Reyes is a community-engaged scholar-artist-organizer.  His work is grounded in a commitment to the empowerment of young folks, teachers, school leaders, and cultural workers to value their ancestral traditions while radically imagining and building capacity in ways that can transform their own realities. As an Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership for Social Justice program at California State University, East Bay, he recognizes and honors the native Yrgen land where the city of Hayward settles upon while seeking to be an active part of cultivating a program that has liberatory potential and power within local communities.  His approaches to educational leadership and critical research is rooted in socio-cultural traditions that decenter whiteness and coloniality.

He has worked as a teacher and school leader in K-12 schooling, as an educator and organizational leader in youth development, and as a teacher education and teacher development scholar in higher education.  Some of his work as a public intellectual and community-engaged scholar investigates Critical, Humanizing, Culturally, and Politically Determined pedagogies and teacher development; Principled, socioculturally-grounded, values-centered, purpose-driven educational leadership and organizational development; Participatory Action Research and problem of practice inquiry; Art, digital media, and Hip Hop as critical race counter-storytelling; Critical, anti-oppressive, and humanizing frameworks of social and emotional learning; and English Language Arts as liberatory education.

In addition to his work at Cal State East Bay, he is a founding school designer for the forthcoming Homies Empowerment Community High School.  He completed his Post Doctoral Fellowship from Stanford University and his Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, Society, and Culture in Education at the University of California at Berkeley.